Last year, when Rabbi Yitzchok Moully staged his first cultural festival on the rolling lawns at the Chabad Jewish Center in Basking Ridge, he described it simply as a shot at doing something different and showing the community a light-hearted side of Jewish life.
On Sunday, July 10, the center will host the second Jewish Music and Art Festival and the Chabad rabbi is hoping a tradition might be taking shape.
Moully, whose accent reveals his Australian roots, is the youth rabbi at the center, where he teaches at its Hebrew school, trains bar and bat mitzva students, and runs a teen group.
The rabbi, who has four small children, also has a passion for creativity that he aims to share.
A self-taught artist, he produces what he calls “Jewish Pop Art,” pictures depicting scenes of Jewish life and objects in bright, bold colors. His work has been exhibited in galleries in New York City, Philadelphia, Denver, and around New Jersey, as well as in Melbourne, Australia.
“I use my painting work to complement and even extend my rabbinical work. As a rabbi, your reach goes only so far; people have to be open to the ideas you’re discussing and welcome engagement,” he said. “ Art, on the other hand, has a wider draw. There is no heaviness. It’s accessible for everyone to relate to and engage in.”
‘Joy and life’
The cultural festival fuses his two passions. The center previously hosted an outdoor concert that drew around 600 people, but the festivals include visual artists — painters, potters, and other crafts workers — along with music groups playing rock, klezmer, and reggae. Like last year, there will be craft activities and games for kids, and — of course –— plenty of kosher food.
The criterion for participating artists, as for musicians, is that their work be respectful of “Torah values,” Moully said. He welcomes upbeat, innovative work “that shows people the joy and life found in Judaism, and how it is accessible to all.”
The event requires more than just artists’ participation; Moully said the success of last year’s festival was thanks to the help of a big crew of volunteers, and he is appealing for more of the same this year. He said he needs as many as 60 helpers in the course of the day, to deal with everything from ticket sales and directing traffic to food service and kids crafts.
Now there is a running joke between the center’s religious leader, Rabbi Mendy Herson, and Moully as to who can attract a bigger crowd, Herson on the High Holy Days or Moully with the festival. The center draws around 500 people to its High Holy Day services. Last year, though it was raining, about 300 people came to the festival. This year, Moully said, they are hoping for 1,500.
“By celebrating Jewish creativity in such a setting,” he told NJJN, “the festival aims to bring everyone — even people who have not set foot in a synagogue — to the Chabad center, to show them Judaism’s openness.”